High on the hills overlooking downtown Rio sits Santa Teresa, one of Rio’s oldest, prettiest and most fascinating neighbourhoods. It takes its name from the Convent established here by Portuguese nuns in the 18th century. In the 19th century influential colonials settled in Santa Teresa and built the grand mansions and the turreted castle which give the area its distinctive architectural character. In the 20th century, when the wealthy abandoned the hills for chic new beachside suburbs, it became “the Montmartre of Rio” an enclave for artists, patrons of the arts and the Bohemian set.
Santa Teresa is still “the Montmartre of Rio”, home to a thriving artists’ colony. One of the city’s big cultural events is Arte de Portas Aberdas (Art with open doors) festival in July, when the artists of Santa Teresa open their doors to the public. However, on weekends throughout the year, many studios and workshops welcome visitors and art works are on display on the sidewalks and in garages. One of Rio’s most interesting art museums, the Museu Chacara do Ceu is located in Santa Teresa. Set in a beautiful garden created by the great Brazilian landscape architect Burle Marx, it houses the Raymundo Castro Maya collection which includes works by native sons like the brilliant Candido Portinari. The Parque das Ruinas, erstwhile home of Laurinda Santos Lobo, an early patron of Brazilian arts, is Santa Teresa hallowed soil. Little of the house remains but regular concerts and art exhibitions are held in the grounds which have sensational views of the city.
As one would expect from an area so steeped in creativity, Santa Teresa has a wealth of unusual shops crammed with quaint and irresistible treasures. Colorful, exotic and enticing, they beckon from every curve of the cobblestone streets; places like Atelie Ze Andrade which sells exquisite china dolls (some in the image of celebrities!) or La Vereda which sells amazing furniture, light fittings and ornaments.
Naturally bars and cafes abound in the Montmartre of Rio. The best, from a tourist point of view, have their own particular twist but offer a singularly Brazilian experience, like Bar do Mineiro which lays claim to some of the city’s best caipirinhas and Simplesmente which hosts evening samba jam sessions from Monday to Saturday. The same goes for restaurants and Espirito Santa serves up some of Rio’s best traditional Brazilian cuisine all in its own divine way.
Quaint and old world lends itself to B and Bs, Backpackers and boutique hotels and behind the facades of many of Santa Teresa’s lovely old homes are bunkrooms, communal kitchens, tarted-up guest rooms and tiny ensuite bathrooms. But contemporary, luxury hostelry, too, is represented on the hill and the Hotel Santa Teresa, Rio 80 and Relais Solar are some of Rio’s latest and finest.
But the stand out among all of Santa Teresa’s attractions is the journey up there on the rattling open sided bondinho or little tram. The queues at the station down in Rua Lelio Gama, just off the Praca Carioca are long but it’s worth the wait. The bondinho trundles off past cone-shaped ultra-modern Saint Sebastian Cathedral and rattles across the magnificent old stone arches which span the district of Lapa, one of Rio’s liveliest nightspots. The arches were built originally in 1732 as the Carioca Aqueduct which carried water from the Carioca River to the city. The bondinho groans up an almost perpendicular hillside, through a cutting and into Santa Teresa’s main street. Here, the tourists begin drop off and local lads latch on, clinging to the window ledges with barely a toe-hold on the steps, along just for the thrill of the ride. Nobody seems to mind. The little tram winds along, through the village and around the hills. More people peel off and others attach themselves to the sides. The tramline ends outside a church in a small piazza, on a hillside on the far edge of Santa Teresa, looking down on the city. The bondinho rests for five minutes. The few remaining tourists mill about while the locals stride off down the narrow lanes. Then the bondinho sounds a tinny bell, the tourists take their seats, the lads take the steps, more passengers stroll up and the journey back begins.
A seat on the bondinho costs about 50 cent, one way. Standing on the steps is free. The experience is priceless.